Freelance in Maine

Four decades of advocacy journalism
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  August 3, 2009

Our journalism echoes our politics: If the press reflects the times, which way will it go now? By Lance Tapley.
"Stop the press!"

I have actually heard someone yell that corny command in earnest — the excitable advertising manager of the Southington News, a weekly in Connecticut.

The press stopped.

It was 1966. A month out of college, I was at my first reporting job. Touched by an early breeze of the late-'60s activist hurricane, I had embarked on a series of stories supporting the clean-up of the local industrial sewer known as the Quinnipiac River. The advertising manager had wandered into the pressroom, where I was relishing my wondrous words on paper, and been seized by the conviction that my latest article rolling off the big cylinders would roil the central Connecticut business establishment.

He was overruled by the editor, who had encouraged my "crusade," as extended efforts in investigative, afflict-the-comfortable, comfort-the-afflicted journalism had been called since the muckrakers of the early 20th century. From this experience I took away a sense of power: I could stir things up.

So a year later, when I began work in the cluttered newsroom of the Portland Press Herald-Express, I looked for crusading opportunities. On my first day I was given the waterfront beat. I discovered that the waters of Portland Harbor and Casco Bay were full of opportunities — disgustingly smelly ones.

Each workday I arrived at the newsroom at 8 am, drank a cup of coffee as I read the Press Herald, and then hiked down the chipped-brick sidewalks of Exchange Street — it was just beginning to emerge from its derelict past — to see what I could quickly pick up on the piers, taking notes with an outsized pencil on a wad of folded copy paper. I had to have a story finished on my industrial-sized typewriter by 11:30 for that afternoon's (and now long-deceased) Express. Between my pedestrian reports on shipping news and pier redevelopment (this last still a front-page subject), I collected information for a series on toxic sewage, crumbling wharfs, and oil spills.

Here, too, I was supported by an editor — Byron Israelson, the Express city editor, a gifted teacher of the craft. I was encouraged also by Eddie Fitzpatrick, the Sunday Telegram feature editor, a sardonic Englishman who is now a Portland restaurateur. Indeed, the Portland newspapers of the time supported a crew of crusading journalists, including two full-time investigative reporters, Bill Williamson and Bill Langley, whom I also considered mentors.

After a year I left for a bigger paper, the Providence Journal, where I reported "straight" news in the conventional "objective" manner. A couple of years later I landed at the San Francisco Chronicle, where I became editor of the Sunday feature section. Living in post-beatnik, still-hippie North Beach, I had an excellent time exploring San Francisco's charms.

Work at the Chronicle was not so happy. Here my crusading involved inserting articles and columns in my section that were critical of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon. These balanced, I felt, the "objective" front-page stories from Washington that too often bought what President Nixon's Republican administration was selling.

One day the very smooth executive news editor called me to his desk.

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